Irish Music in the Middle Ages

William H. Grattan Flood
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Chapter VIII.

THE year 1216 is remarkable for an incident from which we get a clue to the origin of the so-called "Brian Boru's Harp." So much legend has attached to the historic instrument of that name (now housed in Trinity College, Dublin), said erroneously to have belonged to King Brian, that a sketch of the real facts will not be unwelcome to critical readers.

Muiredach O'Daly, of Lissadil, Co. Sligo, was a famous Irish minstrel at the opening of the thirteenth century. In 1216, Donal mor O'Donnell, Prince of Tyrconnell, sent his steward (Finn O'Bradley) into Connaught, to collect tribute, who was slain, in a fit of anger, by O'Daly, for a supposed insult to the bardic profession. The bard fled to Athenry (where, for a while, he was protected by Richard de Burgo), and thence to Thomond and Dublin, pursued by O'Donnell himself, and finally escaped to Scotland, where he remained for some years [1217-1222].

Whilst in Scotland, O'Daly wrote three celebrated poems to O'Donnell, "who permitted him to return unmolested to his native country, and even restored him to his friendship." These Irish poems were fortunately preserved in Scotland, in the Dean of Lismore's Book;[1] and O'Daly was known as Albanach that is, the Scotchman, from his residence in Albania, or Alba.

Meantime, Donnchadh Cairbre O'Briain, King of Thomond, sent his own harp—"the jewel of the O'Briens"—as a pledge, to Scotland (for the ransom or return of the bard O'Daly), where it remained for over 80 years. Thus, we can accurately trace the history of a rare harp of the O'Brien sept, sent to Scotland, about the year 1221, as a forfeit, by the valiant King of Thomond, whose death took place on March 8th, 1243.

About the year 1229, Gillabride Mac Conmidhe [Mac Conmee, Mac Namee, or Conmee], a famous Ulster bard, was commissioned by King O'Brien to endeavour to ransom the much-prized harp. In response to this request Mac Conmidhe—also known by the soubriquet of Albanach on account of his many visits to Scotland—composed the well-known "Ransom song," in commemoration of his playing on its chords for the last time. At that time, the power of a bard was very great, and even a song fetched a high price; but, alas! the lovely harp of the O'Briens—the so-called harp of Brian Boru—would not be restored for "whole flocks of sheep," and so, as O'Curry considers, it remained in Scotland until Edward I. took it with him to Westminster. Finally, on July 1st, 1543, when Henry VIII. created Ulick Mac William de Burgo Earl of Clanrickarde, he presented the Earl with this Irish harp, which had belonged to Donnchadh Cairbre O'Briain.

Vallancey says that this harp, having reverted to the Earl of Thomond, was purchased by Lady Huxley, for "twenty rams and as many swine of English breed," and "bestowed by her to her son-in-law, Henry Mac Mahon, of Clenagh, County Clare,[2] who about the year 1756, bestowed it on Mat MacNamara of Limerick, Esq., Counsellor-at-Law, and some years Recorder of that city." In the year 1760, Arthur O'Neill, the great harpist, played on this venerable instrument, newly strung for the occasion, through the streets of Limerick. It was bequeathed by Mr. MacNamara in 1778 to Ralph Ouseley, Esq., of Limerick, who, in 1781, presented it to the Right Hon. Colonel Conyngham, and, at length, in 1787, Conyngham donated it to Trinity College, Dublin.[3]

The following is Petrie's description of the O'Brien harp:—

“From recent examination, it appears that this harp had but one row of strings; that these were 30 in number, not 28, as was formerly supposed, 30 being the number of brass tuning pins and of corresponding string holes. It is 32 inches high, and of exquisite workmanship; the upright pillar is of oak, and the sound board of red sallow; the extremity of the fore-arm, or harmonic curved bar, is capped in part with silver, extremely well wrought and chiselled. It also contains a large crystal set in silver, under which was another stone, now lost. The buttons or ornamental knobs at the side of the curved bar are of silver. The string holes of the sound board are neatly ornamented with escutcheons of brass carved and gilt. The four sounding holes have also had ornaments, probably of silver, as they have been the object of theft.[4] The bottom which it rests upon is a little broken and the wood very much decayed. The whole bears evidence of having been the work of a very expert artist.”

There is a remarkable entry in connection with the year 1225 in the Annals of Lough Cé, amply demonstrating the progress of instrumental music at that period, especially the cultivation of the harp:—"A.D. 1225. Aedh, the son of Donlevy O'Sochlann, Vicar of Cong, a master of vocal music and harp tuning, the inventor of a new method of tuning, a proficient in all arts, poetry, engraving, and writing, and other arts, died this year."

Apropos of harp-tuning, I may here repeat what has been incidentally mentioned in Chapter II., that this was effected by means of the ceir or harp fastener. Furthermore, gler is the Irish term for tuning; and we find in the Brehon Laws an allusion to the Crann Gléra, that is, tuning-tree or key. But, as has so frequently been insisted on, the theory of music and the rules of the minstrel's art were the outcome of many years of weary study. Blessed Edmund Campion, S.J., in his Account of Ireland written in 1571, tells us that he himself had seen the Irish students "chanting out their lessons piecemeal," which they were wont to "conn by rote."

"Sumer is icumen in"—the earliest known version of a double canon with a ground bass, in England—is merely a harmonised arrangement of a phrase taken from the old Irish tune: "Tá An Samrad ag Teacht," which may be Englished: "The Summer is Coming," sung time out of mind in ancient Erin to usher in the summer season. This Irish air, wedded by Moore to his lyric "Rich and Rare," was copied by John Fornsete, a Benedictine monk, of Reading, about the year 1230, and, "though animated in its measure," as Lady Morgan writes, "yet, still, like all the Irish melodies, breathes the very soul of melancholy." Its Irish origin was clearly proved by Dr. Young, Protestant Bishop of Clonfert, at the close of the eighteenth century, who ably refuted the English claim to it, as advocated by Dr. Burney, in his History of Music.[5]

In this connection, Ireland can justly claim the invention of what is now called "ground bass" or "pedal point," as its origin must be sought in the old Irish cronan, an allusion to which is to be found as far back as A.D. 592, when it is described as "the most excellent of music." St. Colman Mac Lenan, founder of the See of Cloyne, gives us to understand that the Aidbre (Corur Cronain) was the most favourite form of part singing with the educated musicians of the sixth century.[6] O'Curry calls it "a low murmuring accompaniment or chorus, which, from its name Cronan must have been produced in the throat, like the purring of a cat"; and he adds that the word "croning" [crooning] is an abbreviated anglicised form of "cronaning"—not humming, but purring—a corruption of which has resulted in the calling an old woman a "crone."

Not so long since, it was generally believed that the inclusion of the harp in the arms of Ireland only dated from the reign of Henry VIII., but the fact is that our national instrument appears on coins issued by King John and King Edward I.; and, in 1251, we read that "the new coinage was stamped in Dublin with the impression of the King's head in a triangular harp." A harp was originally the peculiar device of the arms of the Leinster province, and it was subsequently applied to the whole kingdom of Ireland, namely, in heraldic language, "on a field vert, a harp or, stringed argent." Under date of 1269, in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, is recorded the death of Aedh O'Flynn, "a good musician. A similar entry occurs in the Annals of Ulster, but the surname is given as "O'Finn," and he is described as a "master of minstrelsy." [rai oirfídig]

The European fame of the Irish harp was at this epoch well sustained, as is best attested by the following quotation from Dante (1265-1321): —

"This most ancient instrument was brought to us from Ireland, where they are excellently made, and in great numbers, the inhabitants of that island having practised on it for many ages. Nay. they even place it in the arms of the kingdom, and paint it on their public buildings, and stamp it on their coins, giving as a reason their being descended from the Royal Prophet David."[7]

Ralph Higden, a distinguished historiographer, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, describes the music of the Irish harp as "musica peritissima." John de Fordun, a Scottish priest, who wrote in the same century, expressly says that "Ireland was the fountain of music in his time, whence it then began to flow into Scotland and Wales."[8]

In 1329, the annalist, Clyn, has the following entry concerning the massacre of Sir John Bermingham, Earl of Louth, at Bragganstown, near Ardee, on June 10th of that year: —

Maelrooney Mac Cerbhaill [O'Carroll], chief musician of the kingdom, and his brother Gillakeigh—a famous timpanist and harper, so pre-eminent that he was a Phoenix in his art—were killed in that company and with him fell twenty timpanists who were his scholars.”


[1] The editor (Rev Mr. MacLachlan) of this valuable Gaelic MS. says that O'Daly "was the ancestor of the MacVurricks, bards to the MacDonalds of Clanranald."

[2] The husband of Lady Elizabeth de Burgh.

[3] Egerton MSS , No. 74.

[4] In 1876 one of these ornaments was found in the Phoenix Park (See Journal R.S.A., for October, 1878.)—W.H.G.F.

[5] Bishop Young died on November 28th, 1800.

[6] There are seven Irish words to designate various forms of Harmony—in particular foacanim, which is glossed by Zeuss as succino or "singing under."

[7] Dialogo di Vincenzo Galilei, A.D. 1589 (not 1581 as stated by Bunting).

[8] Walker's History of the Irish Bards (1786).